Mahatma Gandhi: Leader, Writer, Racist?

(Note: Kaffir is a highly offensive racial slur for black South Africans, similar to nigger in the U.S.)

     In 2003, The Guardian ran a story that discussed the divide between segments of South Africa, as to whether a statue of Mohandas Gandhi was proper or not. Present day, the statue stands in Gandhi square in Johannesburg, yet when it was first unveiled it caused quite the controversy. And quite recently, more and more discussion of the seedier side of Mohandas Gandhi’s life has occurred.

     Don’t get me wrong, I mean, it’s understandable that to many in the world, Gandhi is someone to be respected. His fervent care for the Indian population, that were discriminated against in a very racist South Africa, is honorable. In addition, his acts of non-violence are often, and conveniently I might add, pointed to by certain groups of people in situations of social unrest.

     Nevertheless, what many people may not know about Gandhi is that he was a blatant racist throughout his time in South Africa, spanning from 1893-1914. This is an undeniable fact. One could merely look at some of his own writings for validation. The following statements come from The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi:

Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals....The reader can easily imagine the plight of the poor Indian thrown into such company!
— Mohandas Gandhi
Your petitioner has seen the location intended to be used by the Indians. It would place them, who are undoubtedly infinitely superior to the kaffirs, in close proximity to the latter.
— Mohandas Gandhi
I feel convinced that every minute wasted over the matter merely hastens a calamity for Johannesburg and that through absolutely no fault of the British Indians. Why, of all places in Johannesburg, the Indian location should be chosen for dumping down all the kaffirs of the town passes my comprehension.
— Mohandas Gandhi

     I guess Gandhi just didn’t understand that before coming to South Africa, like the majority of the African continent, he would encounter a lot of native black people. Who knew? And how dare black South Africans be annoyed that such an inspiring man get a statue in their native land, right? This is almost as hard to understand as why Native Americans don’t find Christopher Columbus to be so amazing.       

The statue that was removed from the campus of the University of Ghana

The statue that was removed from the campus of the University of Ghana

     Sarcasm aside, there were numerous other writings of a similar nature that I could have posted, perhaps I will at the end of this piece, nonetheless, those sorts of sentiments are the reason for the divide between South Africans in 2003, and it’s also the reason why there is a more current controversy. This time in Ghana, as last year, professors at the University of Ghana petitioned for the removal of a Gandhi statue on the campus, and won.

     The Guardian once again ran an article which stated that, “The statue of Gandhi was unveiled in June at the University of Ghana campus in Accra by Pranab Mukherjee, the president of India as a symbol of close ties between the two countries.”

     As with almost any discussion that has the word race, racism, discrimination, or inequality in it, people are very divided on this issue. Still, at this point, we can all guess the reasons those in favor of removing the statue, have. However, what are the reasons people have for disagreeing or wanting to oppose the actions the Ghanaian professors took? Why do people think that he deserves such honors?

     Well, this is where things get a little more complicated...interesting, but certainly more complicated. The best example that I stumbled across after treading water in a sea of ignorant comments, was an email response that The Guardian published in its letters section from a London reader, named Nitin Mehta.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela

     His response seemed to encapsulate the feelings of many of the other readers, and was entitled: “Gandhi was an inspiration across Africa”. According to Mr. Mehta,“Mandela was greatly influenced by Gandhi, as was Desmond Tutu, who credits the success of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission to the influence of Gandhian thought. Gandhi made a huge impression, too, on Martin Luther King.”

     These claims are true, Gandhi was a large influence on these men and the actions they ultimately decided to take. However, I must wonder, does Mr. Mehta truly think that Gandhi would have been an inspiration, if they had known of his blatant racism towards black South Africans, whom he referred to as kaffirs at every opportunity? Not to mention the fact that his zealous fight against racism, was never intended to help black South Africans, only Indians; he couldn’t have cared less what happened to the “kaffirs”. Which is something that MLK, a man who admittedly admired Gandhi, never stood for, he didn’t march and die for only “black rights”, he did so for “civil rights”, for all men.

     As The Huffington Post noted, “The Civil Rights Law, a Johnson legacy, affected the nation profoundly as it for the first time prohibited discrimination in employment and businesses of public accommodation on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” MLK never demonized other groups of people, to try and uplift his own, even when other groups of people routinely demonized him, and those that looked like him. And thanks to MLK, and many other black bodies that were killed, brutalized, pressure-hosed, and bitten by dogs, intersectional groups of people (LGBT, Women, Latino, Asian, Native American, Middle Eastern, Immigrants, Black, and White) have been helped, not saved, but definitely helped.

    Another reason that some believe Gandhi should be commemorated, is the claim that Gandhi changed in the years, after he left South Africa. But writers/professors: Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed state in their book, "The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire", that much of the halo that surrounded Gandhi was the result of clever repackaging. They continued on to state, “As we examined Gandhi’s actions and contemporary writings during his South African stay, and compared these with what he wrote in his autobiography and 'Satyagraha in South Africa,' it was apparent that he indulged in some ‘tidying up.' He was effectively rewriting his own history.”

     Instead of acknowledging his egregious, past comments and beliefs, and stating how he had been wrong, he merely tried to sweep them under the rug so that they would not tarnish his image. So, I’m not sold on the whole, “racism was only a thing of his youth” narrative.


     In my mind, Gandhi was a complex individual, who reflected this complexity in his life: he was someone who possessed zealous care for the well-being of all Indians whether they be upper or lower caste, yet he showed outright disdain for other people of color that were treated worse than the Indian population were. 

     Of course, there will be some that try and absolve Gandhi by stating that it was the times, and he was simply a by-product. Yet, it remains impossible to absolve someone of prejudice or racism with such a weak argument, since "the times" are foremost created and maintained by the people that inhabit them. After all, the philosophy behind racism certainly didn't become a reality all on its own, it took certain groups to harbor a fear of people different from them, cultivate that fear into delusional ideas centered around race that later used bogus, pseudo-scientific proofs as to its validity, and then enact those ideas upon groups of people for centuries. Gandhi was obviously not the one to create such philosophies, but for decades he was certainly a willing participant in them.

  • Check out the video below, of collected racist quotes taken from Gandhi's own writings:
All quotes are direct quotations from The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. They are taken from his writings and statements during the years he spent working as an attorney in South Africa, before he went back to India in 1915 to fight for independence. Read Full Story: